Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: Britain Votes 2010

It is now traditional for Parliamentary Affairs to produce simultaneously a special edition of the journal and a book covering various aspects of each UK election. Britain Votes 2010, edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge covers all the main issues relating to the election one would expect and want to find in such a resource. The results and subsequent negotiations prior to the formation of a coalition are covered in excellent depth, with specific chapters on the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland providing rich detail on campaigning and voting patterns and their impact on the election result. There are also chapters covering the campaigns of the main parties, and one on finance which shows the disparity experienced between the 'rich' Conservatives and their opponents. Despite inequalities in campaigning ability and funding, the result was not a disaster for Labour which suggests that there is more to voting behaviour than a flash campaign. The one clear 'effect' is the swing against Labour among Sun readers shown in the chapter on The Media by Dominic Wring and Stephen Ward. While Cleggmania may have been instigated by the first Leaders' Debate and Duffygate by then PM Gordon Brown being caught off-guard by television, but neither these nor innovations online translated into votes; maybe there is still a detectable Sun effect after all. Chapters on gender imbalances, in both media portrayals and despite selection procedures, economic and foreign policy and attitudes towards European integration and immigration round off the book. Perhaps more could be said of the minor parties, though they seemed to have little overall impact beyond the election of Caroline Lucas as Britain's first Green Party MP. Overall, therefore, this book represents an excellent resource that reminds us of the detail as well as providing in-depth analysis of a range of issues and some interesting thoughts for the future of British democracy.

The one issue I would raise about reporting on the election is the often repeated line that 'On 6th May 2010 the British electorate spoke, but it was not entirely clear what they said', a line originating with commentators on May 7th when interpreting what a hung parliament meant. It seems that actually it is clear that the voters as individuals were able to make their own decision on how to vote but collectively there was no winner. Basically it seems the clear outcome was not that any voter tried to engineer a hung parliament but that there was a failure by any party to win over a majority. Despite his flaws, Gordon Brown remained a better PM (perhaps safer pair of hands) than Cameron. Cameron failed to make a case for his social re-organisation and replacing Big Government with Big Society (as Martin J. Smith points out in the book). Voters may have warmed to Nick Clegg but still not seen the Liberal Democrats as a viable government. Hence, despite all the usual campaigning activity, and the added dimension of leader's debates which received record viewer figures for any British political programme, there seemed to be little impact on public opinion from the campaign. Of course we cannot say this with any degree of safety, as it is unclear how many individuals changed their minds due to any specific event during the course of the campaign, but it is striking how pre-campaign polling results seemed to be reflected in the results, notwithstanding minor underestimations of the Labour vote holding up.

These issues are all raised in the book, an analysed in depth where possible. While it is perhaps one of many texts that will emerge on the election its coverage and quality will place it as a key resource for understanding how the British voted in 2010, the potential impacts and how this election should be understood within the context of patterns of campaigning, party performance and voting behaviour for years to come.

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